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Weigh in on Waiting for Superman

Weigh in on Waiting for Superman

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Yesterday, on Oprah's Show, she hosted a discussion about the "crisis in American education" with Waiting for Superman filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates.

Alas I was not able to see this, but I poked around Oprah's site and found a very sensationalized trailer, as well as an excerpt where Rhee defends her practice of laying off teachers who are not "showing results."

I also watched the Twittersphere erupt with comments about Waiting for Superman, as they were listening to Oprah's show. Clearly, the show was whipping people into a panic. Check out how many people are saying "You must see this movie!" in their tweets. Great PR, but is it really helping the discussion?

I'm interested in hearing how educators feel about this issue. Have you seen Waiting for Superman? Did you see the Oprah episode? What do you make of the media frenzy surrounding these issues?

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Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

The executive director of ASCD weighs in:

Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey:
I was dismayed that your show on education reform excluded a key demographic from the dialogue: teachers. Yet the research--and your high-profile guests--say a child's teacher is the most important factor to determining his or her success.

And Ed. Prof Rick Ayers of San Francisco University reviews the movie for HuffingtonPost:
Davis Guggenheim's 2010 film Waiting for Superman is a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions. The film suggests the problems in education are the fault of teachers and teacher unions alone, and it asserts that the solution to those problems is a greater focus on top-down instruction driven by test scores. It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change. Its focus effectively suppresses a more complex and nuanced discussion of what it might actually take to leave no child behind, such as a living wage, a full-employment economy, the de-militarization of our schools, and an education based on the democratic ideal that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. The film is positioned to become a leading voice in framing the debate on school reform, much like Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth did for the discussion of global warming, and that's heartbreaking.

If you come across any other articles that are of interest, I hope you'll share them here.


Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

The best article i've read yet on the reform debate:


Excerpt: We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are--like subpar schools for poor and minority children--and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don't demonstrably do that.

Debra Lynn Smith's picture

We need to get off of the Teachers, with that being said, it is some teachers that need to retire, but there are alot of of us that do a great job. We are the lowest paid professionals in these United States. Here in America, TEACHERS are so hated, I think it's because they don't like the fact that we're off on some days and summer without pay, which they fell to realize, and then we have to teach their children which they neglect to do their part and they (the Parents) are so upset because their kids are not as smart as they want them to be and they know they don't have time to help them with their homework and other things like chores so I think they are all ANGRY, jobs, health, money issues not great...just angry, so they feel we are just getting paid and not fixing their problem..they want us to be the magician, where we can wade our wand and fix everything. Then you have some teachers that are plain ole prejudice, and some Principals that hire the teachers that can't reach all kids and thereby create a big room of discipline problems...then you have the administrators who's sitting in authorithy changing things, adding this doing that and expecting teachers to be healthy year round _ 10 days for sick days... So much stress and burned out and the Parents need help and we need the parents help. Hey, just find a good Church home and let their Pastor or Priest help them live right and get all the moral and values they need and in the end we will have less discipline problems. Let's make the Parents more accountable for their rearing and not give them more power to cause chaos, when in fact, most of our problems lie in the lack of parent involvement especially when their kids are unruly. It really doesn't matter if a kid is from a broken, unruly home life...We as teachers can make a difference, show them the correct way, which we do, but that child, because of lack of parenting, we have a beginning prison cell to offer with a high number of repeat offenders in the school systems, that is, students being sent to ISS - suspended, or in school suspension, troubled kids... that's where we need another species of teachers who can reach these kids before it's too late. Come on people, get real...the answer is right in your face. Give the teachers support with pay increase and listen to us, we know how to fix this mess. Pay us too, for OVERTIME! God Bless the Teachers EVERYWHERE!

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation


by Rick Ayers [who wrote the piece on Huffington Post mentioned above]

While the education filmWaiting For Superman has moving profiles of students struggling to succeed under difficult circumstances, it puts forward a sometimes misleading and other times dishonest account of the roots of the problem and possible solutions.

The amped-up rhetoric of crisis and failure everywhere is being used to promote business-model reforms that are destabilizing even in successful schools and districts. A panel at NBC's Education Nation Summit, taking place in New York today and tomorrow, was originally titled "Does Education Need a Katrina?" Such disgraceful rhetoric undermines reasonable debate.

Let's examine these issues, one by one:

Read the rest here http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/what-superm...

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

Another excellent piece that grapples with the nuances of the debate without being overly complex.


If I had to summarize the progress we've made in education over the last decade, it's that we've move beyond the illusion that we could restructure our way to a good education system and we've finally begun to focus on the core issue: the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the student.

Alice Sajdera's picture

Waiting for superman is right about too many things. Many of the things we hold sacred in education, teachers unions and tracking in High Schools among them, were solutions to problems of a different era. In the 21st century we need to deeply rethink everything about schools- What we teach, how we teach it, what we value in our facilities. The film addressed some clear realities- that charter schools (and their magnet predecessors) can attract talented faculty, and successfully educate students from "all walks of life." What wasn't mentioned is that the charters they highlighted were also SMALL, with graduating classes of 100 or so students. Since the 1970s, schools have gotten progressively larger-in part so that we can afford great facilities for everyone. A huge HS or Middle School can have playing fields, arts centers, cafeterias....

The lesson of the Magnet movement should be that schools shouldn't be everything for everybody, they should try to teach something really well. The film made many points, but never addressed school size, but it is a critical element to healthy communities.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I finally saw Waiting for Superman, and I was surprised that people were so up in arms about it. Yes, it lauds charters. Yes, it makes the Unions look uncooperative or as if they are protecting sub-standard teachers. But somewhere in the middle, it shows the biggest problem in education- where you live largely effects the quality of education available, and quality is uneven across the board.
The other problem is that we have poorly defined metrics as to what a "quality" education consists of.

Just like in medicine, quality care looks very different to patients than to Doctors. Patients care about customer service issues and a decent outcome, doctors care about good outcomes, cost-effective care, not over-or under-treating patients, early discharge rates, no readmissions, amount of time per patient/case, etc. Outcomes are not the only quality measure.
In education, we have to look for quality measures beyond test scores. What are the student's levels of excitement or satisfaction with what they're learning?
Moreover, if we insist on trying to treat education like a business (and it's not- it's really long term research and development of new citizens)why aren't we concerned very much with what the customers- students and parents- think about the system, or explain to them what quality in education truly means?
Just like I'm not qualified to question every aspect of my doctor's decision making because I read Web MD, I think it's unfair that parents or politicians assume they are education experts because they sat in a classroom many years ago.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

I think you touch on an excellent point in your comment: the need for measuring quality education beyond just test scores.

Let's say oral interviews with students became a factor in how a child's yearly learning was rated by the state. Children express their learning in so many marvelous ways that go unseen (not by their teachers!) These talents and skills cannot be tallied with a number 2 pencil and a bubble-sheet.

Rebecca Alber

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

The good news is that Waiting for Superman and The Race to Nowhere are upping the discussion around what do we consider 'well educated'. All documentaries have to have a story and a point of view to be sale-able. Teachers get a bum rap in WfS and are the bad givers of homework in R2N. We are the rubber that hits the road, and we are a wildly varied group with a similar range of managers, as David Brooks and Gail Chapman discuss in Betty Ray's comment above. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/waiting-for-super-princi...

I see bad management as a key piece missing from both the movie critiques of education. The level of leadership training is being dumbed down because of the shortage of administrators. It's way less than an MBA requires.

To attract visionary, smart leaders who can build successful schools, we need to make their jobs manageable with a level of control that reflects their responsibilities. Including some hire/fire authority. Not popular to say, but dreadful teachers do damage to their colleagues in terms of increased work load and the reputation of our profession. Let alone to their students.

There are vicious circles going on - bad managers leads to tight tenure rules to protect us. But how can a leader make needed changes if they can't choose their team, at least to some degree? Divided faculties and dead-wood and worse teachers can intimidate new teachers and make reform glacially slow. We have to move faster.

Let's fix job responsibilities for administrators, give better training and demand higher standards for them, give them better support. Working for a good principal makes coming to school a pleasure. And vice versa. It's a huge deal for almost any teacher. If the teachers ain't happy, ain't nobody happy...

Bob Charles's picture
Bob Charles
I am in search of definitions for "Quality Eduction" and "Great School".

Whitney Hoffman said:".. we have poorly defined metrics as to what a 'quality' education consists of."

In the context of state funded schools, establishing a well defined "purpose" for the education system is of primary importance. Then, well defined metrics are absolutely essential. All the district mission statements I have read are so broad base that they could include everything. Not useful. Schools are not the only thing providing education to people. True, schools are not a business. But they are organizations.

Whitney Hoffman said: "In education, we have to look for quality measures beyond test scores."

Why can't each individual student's capabilities be quantified? Then their progress be measured against their own capabilities and not some low-bar generic standard? For example, Ohio's Report Card measures nothing but the Harvard Effect (Test scores). Columbus City Schools (CSS) gets bashed because the have many students that are sociology-economicaly oppressed. But, I claim that if CSS students were measured against progress towards their own capability, CSS would be rated Excellent. In fact they try harder. There would be a lot of blushing faces in the well-to-do districts.

Whitney Hoffman said: "I think it's unfair that parents or politicians assume they are education experts"

As a parent, I am not an education expert. Neither are teachers. Teachers are experts in teaching. They have gained that expertise through years of experience and feedback from working with students. Being an expert in education is much more.

Generally, parents have a say at the conceptual level. We have a vision for our kids. We pass on to them cultural behaviors that are unique to us. We have a right to ask that public schools be limited in scope so that it doesn't interfere with those cultural behaviors. We can not invent or design an "educational machine" or even run it. But, we are capable of knowing if it works according to our requirements.

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